In two Republican primary races for the state’s highest criminal court, a challenger wants to make ethics the centerpiece of his bid to unseat Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, and three candidates are vying for an open seat in a clash that pits experience against conservative support.
Early voting for the Court of Criminal Appeals primary races ends Friday, and the election is Tuesday.
In the race for presiding judge, David Bridges — a member of the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals since 1997 — said he wants to “restore integrity to the office” and criticized Keller for what he calls a series of ethical missteps, including paying a $25,000 Texas Ethics Commission fine in 2013 for not disclosing $3.8 million in property and income on required financial disclosure statements and for her role in declining an appeal from death row inmate Michael Richard in 2007 because it came after 5 p.m. Richard was executed later that night.
“I believe in the death penalty, but everyone deserves their day in court. You just don’t close the court on a time clock. Our court recently stayed up till 1 a.m. on a voter ballot case,” Bridges said.
Keller said that Bridges was dredging up old issues that have been settled — the financial statements were an “oversight” that she corrected, and an ethics reprimand over the Richard’s execution was overturned on appeal. Voters already knew about the issues being raised by Bridges when they elected her to a fourth six-year term to the court in 2012, she said.
“I am really trying to stress my own experience, my qualifications,” Keller said. “I think this election is about so much more, and after 23 years on this court, I have voted on most of the cases that established the jurisprudence of Texas and criminal law, so I know what the law is.”
Both candidates for presiding judge, the administrative leader of the nine-judge court, tout their experience on the bench and off.
Bridges said he has written more than 2,000 opinions on the appeals court serving the six counties around Dallas. He also has handled attorney discipline cases for the State Bar of Texas and worked both sides of the bar as a defense lawyer and assistant district attorney.
He also is board certified as a specialist in criminal law and criminal appellate law and has been a delegate to every Texas GOP convention since 1992.
Keller said she wants to keep the court running smoothly and ensure the success of recent innovations, including online video of oral arguments and the electronic filings of briefs.
Keller also hopes to continue work designed to improve the criminal justice system as chairwoman of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission and as a board member of Council of State Governments Justice Center and member of the Judicial Advisory Council to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The winner of the GOP primary will face Democrat Maria Jackson, a state district judge in Houston, in the November election.
Three Republicans are vying to replace GOP Judge Elsa Alcala, who is retiring:
• Jay Brandon said he has 30 years of experience with appeals in criminal cases, mostly as a prosecutor in the appellate section of the Bexar County district attorney’s office, but also as a defense lawyer from 1990 to 2011 and as a staff lawyer for two appellate courts, including the court he’s running for.
“I have been on both sides and would approach each case without particular bias for one side or the other,” Brandon said. “I have so much experience with that court and have done the same jobs these judges do.”
The author of 18 mystery and suspense novels, Brandon also spent 11 years on a panel that advised the Court of Criminal Appeals on changes to rules of evidence and appellate procedure. He’s also board certified as an expert in criminal appellate law and family law.
• Michelle Slaughter said she is a constitutional conservative whose judicial philosophy mirrors U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and she touts endorsements from many of the state’s most conservative groups, including Texas Right to Life, Empower Texans, the Texas Home School Coalition and Texas Values.
Slaughter said President Barack Obama’s election inspired her to become active in Republican Party groups, and she is serving her second term as a state district judge in Galveston County after ousting a longtime Democrat in 2012, leaving a law firm she had started to challenge a judge she had accused of failing to promptly address cases.
“I transformed that court in my first two years on the bench to the most efficient court with the lowest backlog” of cases in Galveston County, she said.
• Dib Waldrip said he has been involved in the criminal justice system for more than 30 years, beginning as a New Braunfels police officer and continuing as a briefing attorney for two state courts of appeal, an assistant district attorney and Comal County’s elected district attorney from 1997 to 2007.
He has been a state district judge in Comal County for the past 12 years, is board certified as a specialist in criminal law, helped develop Comal County’s indigent defense system and said he handled more than 100 criminal appeals as a prosecutor.
“I’ve got the length of service, and also the breadth of service, in criminal justice,” Waldrip said. “I’ve worked to improve the system.”
The winner of the GOP primary faces no Democratic opponent in November.
Candidates for presiding judge, Court of Criminal Appeals
David Bridges, 62, has served on the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas since 1997. Has been an assistant district attorney in Smith and Upshur counties and a defense lawyer. He oversaw attorney misconduct litigation as first assistant and chief of litigation for the State Bar of Texas. Law degree: Texas Tech University, 1984.
Sharon Keller, 64, became the first woman to serve on the court after her election in 1994 and has been presiding judge since the 2000 election. She leads the Texas Indigent Defense Commission and is on the board of the Council of State Governments Justice Center. Law degree: Southern Methodist University, 1978.
Candidates for Place 8, Court of Criminal Appeals
Jay Brandon, 64, is a prosecutor in the appeals section of the Bexar County district attorney’s office, where he also formed the conviction integrity unit. He was a defense lawyer, including appeals, for about 20 years. He’s a former staff lawyer for the 4th Court of Appeals and briefing attorney for the Court of Criminal Appeals. Law degree: University of Houston, 1985.
Michelle Slaughter, 43, is serving a second term as state district judge in Galveston County after working for two large law firms and starting her own practice that focused on civil litigation. She served as an intern for two federal judges and for Justice Tim Taft on the state’s 1st Court of Appeals in Houston. Law degree: University of Houston, 2004.
Dib Waldrip, 54, has been a state district judge in New Braunfels for the past 12 years. He also spent 10 years as Comal County’s district attorney, four years as an assistant district attorney and was a lawyer on two state courts of appeals from 1990-93. He is president of the Texas Association of Specialty Courts. Law degree: St. Mary’s University, 1990.
About the job
The Court of Criminal Appeals handles all death penalty appeals and, as the state’s highest criminal court, has the discretion to review lower-court rulings on criminal matters.
Annual pay is $170,500 for presiding judge, $168,000 for judge.